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Unplugging From Technology + Nature = Leadership Success

(posted: February 4th, 2013)

Stop!

  • Put down the iPhone.
  • Stop checking your email.
  • The webinars and LinkedIn messages can wait.

You may not believe it, but to be a successful leader you need to disconnect from the electronic devices and go for a nature hike. Or walk the dog.

Leaders On Electronic Overload

They promise higher productivity, greater creativity, and an increased coolness factor. Modern technological devices allow you to check your email from anywhere, keep tabs on stock prices all over the world, and be "social" day or night.

But I have long suspected that all our technological wonders are having the opposite effect - draining our energy and our creative abilities and increasing our stress.

When I've spent time away from my desk and my electronics, immersed in nature, I feel and act differently. My thinking is more nimble, my ability to connect the dots is greater and faster, and I have more patience with myself, and others. It's as though all of Kristi is present and functioning, not just 50%.

Now a new study has validated my suspicion that there are great benefits to stepping away from the iPhone and getting into nature.

"I like spending weekends in the woods of Northern California. Getting away from phones, email and social networks gives me serious thinking time. I get my best ideas running on remote logging trails."

Ed Roshitsh, Software Company Executive

Think Fast

Our constantly-on state reduces our ability to think quickly, make connections and problem-solve creatively. This new study finds clear links between unplugging, immersing in nature, and improved high-level mental functions.

What are some of the abilities we need to be stellar leaders?

  • an open mind
  • responsiveness
  • flexible thinking
  • comfort with change
  • an ability to make connections that others cannot
  • creative problem solving

The same abilities that are overtaxed by our busy, multi-tasking, high-tech world.

Pop Quiz

What one word links these three ideas:

  • inch / meal / peg

How about these:

  • wood / liquor / luck

Or these:

  • stick / maker / point

These questions come from the Remote Associates Test (RAT), used to assess creative reasoning and problem solving. The concept behind the test is that it requires an open, responsive, flexible mind to make the connections.

The answers to the questions above are square, hard, and match.

The new study by Ruth & Paul Atchley, of the University of Kansas and David Strayer, of the University of Utah took 56 subjects divided into two groups and sent all of them on a 4-day Outward Bound adventure during which they were not allowed to use any technology or communication devices. One group took the RAT before their trip, the other group after they returned.

The results, which appear in PLoS One, were dramatic. The group tested after their time spent in nature did 50% better on the test than the first group.

I was wowed by this! I thought I'd better get myself to the beach, and for more than just one hour.

There isn't much known about our brains on technology, but social psychologists have long worried that all our screen time is rewiring our brains, and not for the better.

"The current research indicates that there is a real, measurable cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time truly immersed in a natural setting"

Atchley & Strayer, study authors

Nature Immersion

So is it being out in nature, or is it the unplugging from technology? Or some combination of the two? And what about the role of physical exercise?

This study was small and unable to pinpoint which element caused the increased creativity. Psychologists and neural scientists will want to know the answers, of course, but for the rest of us, technology deprivation and nature immersion go together.

After all, most people have the good sense to leave the iPhone home when they head into nature.

"In my own work coaching executives who have made a commitment to exercise, they definitely feel more alert, creative and in control of their work. And as an endurance athlete myself, most of my training is outdoors here in California - and I definitely get perspective and inspiration being out in nature and 'out of touch'!"

Bobbie LaPorte, Executive Coach & triathlete

Creative Problem Solving

As executives one of our primary responsibilities is problem-solving. The most successful leaders are the ones who can recognize the problem, evaluate the possible solutions, and make a decision, quickly and efficiently. When we are fuzzy and sluggish, our problem-solving suffers.

We can let the scientists worry about which part of the equation is having the biggest effect. What you and I can take from this is that our leadership performance will improve if we take time away from our electronics and spend it soaking up nature, be it in Yosemite or in our own backyards.

Whether you hike, run, camp, fish, meditate, or take a walk on the beach, the time you spend in nature may be some of the most important for you as an executive. And it doesn't have to be a three week backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail.

I just came back from walking the dog, and I feel refreshed and much more able to focus on my task. (The dog loved it, too!)

Challenge Yourself
  • What is your experience with leadership and unplugging?
  • Do you find that time in nature improves your performance as a leader?
  • What routine do you follow for getting some outdoors time?

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